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New Exec Heralds What Obama's All About

January 15, 2009 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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Allison Pokras
As the country prepares to welcome a president with a focus on community organizing and grass-roots activism, so, too, is Philadelphia ushering in its own new leader with a similar focus.

Allison Pokras was recently named as the executive director of Operation Understanding, a local organization that offers leadership training for African-American and Jewish high-schoolers. Each year, the group selects 12 to 20 high school juniors -- evenly divided between African-Americans and Jews -- to participate in a year of leadership activities and programming designed to foster cross-cultural awareness.

"I really hope to expand the footprint of [Operating Understanding] in the city," said Pokras, who began in November, succeeding longtime head Barbara Mattleman. "One great thing is that, while religious and community organizations have been a solid base for who invites our students to speak, many corporations are now branching out and doing that as well."

She cited the example of a recent event with Leadership Philadelphia, where some students were invited to address a number of the city's corporate bigwigs. Pokras noted that, despite coming at the end of a Friday, the adults -- well into their corporate careers -- were open and receptive to the teens' message.

"The kids aren't trying to push an agenda; they just want people to listen to their story and empathize," she said.

The group's highest profile event is an overseas trip for students, who spend two weeks in both Israel and Senegal, exploring each others' cultural heritage. While that is the highest profile piece of the year, Pokras said that's actually more a jumping-off point than a culmination.

As for her own leadership skills, Pokras served as manager for special projects with Facing History and Ourselves, a Boston nonprofit that works with students to fight prejudice and racism. Additionally, she holds a master's degree from Brandeis University's Hornstein Program, where her coursework included community-building and co-engagement -- something she encounters with daily in her current position, and a passion she shares with the incoming commander-in-chief.

She said that the group plays into the work that Obama's about -- "grass-roots work, community organizing, and reaching out your hand to work with somebody who's different."

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